“In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius” – Gerald Finley, bass-baritone/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner – Chandos SACD CHSA5178 [Distr. by Naxos], 78:40, (1/29/2017) [Track list follows] ****:
Splendid performances of some lesser known works.
Sibelius is not known very widely for his vocal music but what a rich and rewarding collection of his songs for voice and orchestra as well as some of his legend-inspired tone poems this is!
The two orchestral tone poems here in this splendid collection are actually among Sibelius’ better known works. Pohjola’s Daughter is based on a Kalevala legend in which an old mystic of sorts discovers the daughter of the demi-goddess Pohjola spinning a golden thread in the night sky. The Oceanides is simply, but majestically, Sibelius’ ode to the power of the seas (the composer was said to have been inspired by Debussy’s La Mer.) Both of these works are representative of the very colorful and somewhat impressionistic Sibelius and remain among his most programmatic pieces. The inclusion of the Romance for strings (dating from 1904) is a pleasant work and certainly an example of lesser-known and introspective Sibelius but other than the curiosity that it is it is not of the same caliber of the other works in this collection.
There are many fine recordings of both Pohjola’s Daughter and the Oceanides; these present ones faring very well compared to the many out there. (I like Simon Rattle’s interpretations.) The real reason to acquire this disc is, indeed, the songs for voice and orchestra; performed here with majesty by the great Canadian singer Gerald Finley.
My favorite in this set is the title work, In the Stream of Life, orchestrated by the late great Einojuhani Rautavaara whom many (including myself) consider Finland’s greatest post-Sibelius composer. The texts in this majestic cycle come from the poetry of a number of nineteenth and early twentieth century writers including Fedor Dehmel, Johan Runeberg and Ernst Josephson. The words as a whole express various aspects of the majesty and mystery of nature. Sibelius’ music and Rautavaara’s orchestrations provide the necessary power and beauty.
The many other songs in this set are all very captivating and offer up both familiar Sibelius melodic and harmonic flow and, occasionally, a darker, more “Straussian” approach – such as in the amazing I natten (At Night.)
I enjoyed all these works – and certainly the performances of Gerald Finley – a great deal. The most atmospheric and engaging of all these works to me – aside from On the Stream of Life – were the beautiful but eerie At Night, the equally transfixing Come Away, Death (after Shakespeare) and The Rapids Riders’ Brides; which takes its texts from the ominous narrative poem by Aukusti Oksanen.
This is really a rich and rewarding collection of some music and a ‘side’ of the great Jean Sibelius we do not get to hear very often. Much of his music is reflective of the political turmoil and staunch history of the native Finnish people and the Kalevali culture he grew up in. I have always felt that Sibelius and his music deserve to be considered among the greatest of the twentieth century. This recording should add to that notion in the minds of most listeners.
The Bergen Philharmonic in Norway is one of the world’s great orchestras and performs wonderfully here. Gerald Finley has a powerful but supple voice and he is a singer quite capable of power and of tenderness. This recording is a real find in my opinion and I recommend it highly. The sound quality – as in everything from Chandos – is magnificent.
1. Pohjola’s Daughter
2-8. In the Stream of Life
9. The Rapids Riders’ Brides
11. Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable
12. The Diamond on the March Snow
13. Duke Magnus
14. The Oceanides
15. On the Veranda by the Sea
16. At Night
17. Come Away, Death